Growing up, all Samatha Power wanted to be was a sports journalist. Her path, however, as anyone who has followed the career of the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations knows, took a radically different turn.
In her 2019 memoir, The Education of an Idealist (Dey Street Books), Power recounts her journey from her childhood in Ireland to her role at the United Nations during the Obama administration. Along the way she worked as a war correspondent during the Balkan wars in the 1990s, wrote the Pulitzer Prize–winning book “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide (Basic Books), and served in President Obama’s cabinet as a human rights adviser. Since leaving government in 2017, Power has taught at Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Law School in Massachusetts, where she lives with her husband, legal scholar and writer Cass Sunstein, and their two young children.
How did a sports-loving girl who emigrated to America at age 9 become one of the country’s most prominent advocates for human rights? U.S. Catholic sat down with Power to talk about her Catholic faith and the idealism that fuels her tireless activism.
How did faith shape your upbringing?
Both my parents are from Ireland. I lived in Ireland until I was 9 years old and went to a Catholic school. In that structure I was not only grounded in the beginnings of my moral education and Catholic teaching, but I also developed habits of expressing my faith outside of formal structures that are still with me today and that I practice with my kids.
In Ireland there’s a deep knowledge and great pride in how much humanitarian work is being done around the world by Irish missionaries and people working with humanitarian and relief organizations, supported by various parishes, and by Catholics giving each year. Even as a young girl, I knew this was a great Irish export: the good that so many of these priests and people of faith were doing to help people in vulnerable circumstances, particularly in developing countries. It was inspiring to know that a small country such as ours was sending into the world people of great generosity and spirit.
The Troubles in Northern Ireland also made one’s sense of Catholic identity very salient. We knew the downside of sectarianism. But I think the Troubles also focused people’s minds on the teachings and the traditions of the church. Certainly, I was aware as a child of people being persecuted for their faith, just because they were Catholic, and that stirred in me a defensiveness and a protectiveness. Those were the dimensions of my Irish experience.
In those days divorce was not allowed in Ireland, largely because of the influence of the Catholic Church. I may not have ended up in America but for the prohibition on divorce, which made it impossible for my wonderful parents, who I loved equally and massively but who had trouble getting along, to end their marriage within the Irish context. So my mother came to America in 1979 with my younger brother, me, and the Dublin man who is now my stepfather. While I’m very glad how things have landed, especially when I look at the family I’ve built for myself, that was a difficult time and a rupture in my life.
When I came to America I had a thick Dublin accent, long red hair, and no American wardrobe. I wore my Mount Anville school uniform—a cardigan, tartan skirt, and black patent leather shoes—around Pittsburgh. It was a disaster. So much was different. What had been small was now big. What had been hurling was now baseball. I went from being so connected with my large, Catholic, Irish family to coming here and knowing almost no one.
But there was continuity in going to Mass and continuing my Catholic education—no longer in the parochial school system but at Sunday school on the weekends. There was a sense of safety and home in that. The prayers were the same, the songs were the same, the holidays were the same, the questions were the same. This provided some comfort during a big dislocation.
In your memoir you write about human dignity as a historical force. How did the concept of dignity shape your views when you were growing up?
I think dignity is a powerful concept that has had a thunderous impact in the world. When you’re young and still operating by instinct or intuition, you don’t yet have a considered theory defining your worldview. Nor can you pinpoint precisely why you believe what you believe. But the idea that every individual is equal in the eyes of God or that every person is made in the image of God—that’s powerful. It’s an underpinning for basic conceptions of human rights, whether civil and political rights or social and economic well-being.
It also speaks to something more, about agency, choice, and the entitlement that every individual has to be respected and not be judged on the basis of something arbitrary like the color of their skin, their gender, or their sexual orientation.
While writing my memoir, it was interesting to look back and see this throughline, the way in which I had felt moved by the trampling of dignity and the assertions vulnerable people were making of their dignity. After Pittsburgh we moved to Atlanta, where my African American classmates participated in a busing program. There had been protests and court cases to try to keep them out of the school that I attended. My Black classmates had to get up sometimes at 4 a.m. in order to take one bus to a hub and catch another bus to school just to be able to have access to the kind of educational opportunity that I had living two blocks away from my school.
The idea that every individual is equal in the eyes of God—that’s powerful.
I was very moved by watching them march into the school, participate, and—despite being made to feel very unwelcome—thrive. I felt a sense of solidarity with them. I couldn’t fully put myself in their shoes. But I think the knowledge that we should live in a world where these burdens are not imposed on people just because of economic circumstance, religion, or race was instinctively planted in me.
Would I have articulated this at the time as a reaction rooted in a conception of dignity? Probably not. But when I look back, it was so powerful. Again and again I end up more moved and motivated by the one than the many. I think Mother Teresa said that: the power of the one.
How did this affect your career path?
All I wanted to be when I was in high school was a sports journalist. That was the track that I was headed on, irrespective of my views about equality or human rights. I loved sports and that was my mission.
One summer during college, I was back in Georgia working in the sports department of the local CBS affiliate, and I just happened to be in the video booth when footage was beamed in from Tiananmen Square in China in June 1989. The most vivid embodiment of what was—and is—at stake in our world for me was the image of “Tank Man,” which was published around the world in subsequent days: that single man in Beijing wearing a white Oxford shirt and dark pants and carrying a couple of bags. He was never identified, but in my mind he is clearly just coming back from the store and bringing home groceries. He sees these tanks moving in to crush the protests, and he walks in front of the tanks carrying his shopping bags and just refuses to move.
I was 18 when I saw that image and the footage of the deadly crackdown. Seeing these young people assert their dignity and rights against a very repressive regime was immensely moving and made me ask myself, “Am I doing enough” and “Is this the right kind of career path for me?”
At the time I would not have said, “One day I’m going to become a human rights lawyer and get involved in public policy and become the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.” That would have been like saying, “One day I’m going to live on the moon.” It was so far from my life experience and what I would have felt capable of becoming. But that ended up being something of a turning point. I went back to university with a determination to learn about what was happening in places like China.
It’s one thing to talk about individual dignity. But I was ignorant of the circumstances in which those students were rising up. I was ignorant of the Chinese Communist Party and what was going on. I was ignorant of racial injustice in my own neighborhood. It wasn’t as if I was in an empowered position to really make a difference. I realized I wasn’t informed enough.
So I tried to be a more serious student, with no expectations about where that would take me. But again and again, in subsequent phases of my career, I have felt pulled by individual stories or by that feeling of “there but for the grace of God.” I feel I’ve been so lucky to have had the opportunity to come to America, take advantage of these great educational opportunities, and not have to tear down the barriers my mother did just a generation before.
I think that prayer is very helpful in retaining that perspective. Just the act of expressing gratitude makes you realize the litany of things for which you can feel blessed even in difficult times. In so doing, you realize what you’re lucky enough to have and how difficult things are for other people. And that creates a sense of responsibility.
In your memoir you write about “shrinking the change.” What does this mean?
I borrowed the idea of “shrink the change” from a book called Switch (Broadway Books) by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Their point is that you can just feel so small, especially during a time when we have, for example, more displaced people in the world than at any time since World War II and when our planet is warming in a manner that’s outpacing our ability to put in place remediation. You can feel paralyzed by the knowledge that any single thing that you do is not going to eradicate injustice or any of those large-scale problems we see every day.
But, they say, just because the problems are huge doesn’t mean your solution needs to be commensurately huge. Maybe eventually, in order to make transformational change, it does. But you don’t go from zero to 60 overnight. In order for individuals to feel like agents in shaping our world, it’s really important they bite off something they can chew. The idea of shrinking the change is to find in one’s own life something that one person can do that won’t solve the whole problem, but that constitutes a meaningful if small step.
I’m more convinced than ever not only that change is needed but also that individuals are the vehicle through which this needs to happen.
For example, to stay with the issue of displaced people, I’ve worked in the Obama administration, but I didn’t have a lot of influence with the Trump administration. My ability to make a difference as it relates to policies that the Trump administration put in place on refugees is very small at best. But that doesn’t mean that I, as a citizen, can’t do things to try to improve conditions for refugees who already live in the United States, especially those who live in my community. Or, during the pandemic, I can recognize what it is like for people who are doubly vulnerable, whether as native-born Americans or as newcomers to this country. I’m not going to solve a global pandemic from where I live in Massachusetts, that’s for sure. But there’s probably something I can do that would shrink the change that is needed, that could make it more manageable and make a difference.
Can you explain the title of your memoir, The Education of an Idealist?
I think people expected me to tell a tale that I started all starry-eyed and thought I could change the world, but the world is nasty, brutish, and short. What I really came to zero in on, particularly as I wound down my time in the government, was this idea that you can’t change the world just like that, but you can change individual worlds. There are things that can always be done that are often right in front of our noses. But it’s hard to see them sometimes because the breadth of the larger challenge can crowd out the importance of offering support to whomever you can.
While I was ambassador at the United Nations I made an effort to mix up the relatively sterile proceedings by bringing in the voices of people affected by the larger issues, whether sexual violence, ISIS, or North Korean repression. It’s amazing that all these years after the founding of the United Nations, our institutions have become relatively insulated from those voices. These are the people who know best what needs to be done and who can also best bring to life the human stakes of contemporary crises.
This is shrinking the change in a minuscule way. To insist that if we were dealing with the Ebola epidemic, for example, we weren’t just hearing from United Nations officials with statistics about how badly things were going, but we’d also bring a front-line health worker from Liberia into the Security Council and have his voice be the one summoning people to their better angels.
Although that amplification of often invisible and forgotten voices didn’t end the problem, it succeeded in encouraging more people to throw themselves into trying to find larger solutions. And it certainly humanized the stakes of what we were working on.
Has your sense of idealism changed over the years?
I’m still an idealist. I don’t believe that giving up on fighting injustice is an option. I’m very realistic about the odds, depending on what I’m advocating for or trying to get done on a given day. I’m not somebody who thinks that we just snap our fingers and change comes to our world. But to give up on improving the planet would be not only wrong given the moral stakes but dumb given the massive toll that comes from not cooperating with other countries. It may sound idealistic to think, “We should work together across borders to fight common threats.” But is that idealistic, or is that just realistic and necessary in the 21st century?
I believe that American foreign policy should be more attentive to human rights concerns. And again, it’s easy to say, “Oh, that’s so idealistic.” But when governments abuse the rights of their people, it has profoundly radicalizing effects that can result in a significant number of people becoming more susceptible to extremism and even terrorist recruitment. I’m more convinced than ever not only that change is needed and we need to push things in a more constructive direction, which is the essence of idealism, but also that individuals are the vehicle through which this needs to happen.
The big changes in America have come about because of bottom-up movements, much more than top-down fiat from some leader. Part of idealism is believing that individuals have a role to play in making the change that they seek.
How does idealism intersect with your faith?
If you are active in the fields of human rights or humanitarian work, there is an awful lot of pain out there. You can have some difficult days wondering whether the effort you’re making is enough or whether the deep structural forces out there that make improving things so hard are just bigger than you.
My faith doesn’t give me an optimism that things are going to turn out OK. I don’t think that’s something that comes naturally to me—to believe that everything’s going to just get back on track. Instead I think my faith gives me a necessary resilience. If something isn’t working, if the kind of cooperation that’s needed across borders is not happening or the policies by different actors are getting less humane, having this lodestar of Jesus’ teachings and life gives me an incentive to keep getting back up. Not because I think inevitably things are going to work out because God wants them to work out. But because I see that in order for anything to improve, it’s going to require individuals to dust themselves off and keep at it.
I think faith also gives me perspective about what real sacrifice is. There are people in this world today making real sacrifice. Throughout history Dorothy Day and other Catholics whose work I’ve admired so much—they made real sacrifice. It puts one’s own commitments in perspective to see some of the Catholics who have come before us. If they could renounce and give up and sacrifice as much as they gave, the least we can do is keep at it.
This article also appears in the January issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 86, No. 1, pages 16-20). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Stephen Kelleghan